It's coming up. Very soon, in fact. In mid-May, people will start to note Theo Epstein's contract is half-over. Along with that will come an increased number of calls (both open and veiled) for his ouster. The parent club, as constructed in mid-May, probably won't look much better than it did at some points in 2012. Or even 2011. The question is, what is required to make a compelling case to fire Epstein before, or even as, his contract expires?
For some, who prefer spectacle to persuasion, pointing at the team's record is enough. Or lagging attendance numbers. Are those enough, though, to be considered 'persuasive', using "change opinions and attitudes" as the germ of a definition? To do that, I'm going to perform a time-travel trick, and go back to the mid-1970s.
Imagine, if you will, you were able to return to 1975 and have a ten minute audience with Cubs then-owner P.K. Wrigley. Your goal is to set up a longer meeting with him in a few days to go over more details on how to improve the team. You have complete knowledge of present-day (2014) statistical trends, injury histories, benefits of advancements in nutrition and health, and anything else you deem fit. However, to get the full hour of his time, you must get him to agree to a 'second date'.
Ooooh, cool. I can bring anything I want? Computers, power point, data, video, and... uh oh... ten minutes?
The question, as you prepare, isn't what information to bring. You only have ten minutes. To get him to agree to a follow-up, you must get him agree to... what? What is the specific thing or things that you must pound home in ten minutes, when the first two might be an introduction and small talk? In reality, it appears, you must convince a man that has been running the team in his own way for over forty years, that he is wrong.
As it turns out, Wrigley would die in 1977, and his son would soon sell to the Tribune to pay a large estate tax bill. What had been a relaxing afternoon for many years was going to become more tumultuous into the early 1980's. Whether William was tired of it all, saw the dollar signs, or just wasn't very good at ownership isn't in question. Actually, some of the curious decisions by P.K. aren't entirely the idea, either. If you want to question his stance on race relations, you can do that. If you want to encourage better coaches, or more willingness to pay more for better players (he probably could have traded for Willie Mays in the late 1960s or early 1970s. But he didn't.), you can do that. But, remember, you only have ten minutes.
Ten minutes to convince him that he has been wrong for a portion of his ownership reign.
I think there are a number of things most of us might have liked a 're-emphasis on' in the mid 1970s. The question is, how to be persuasive? Even if you have a chance, being persuasive can be difficult. Many of us have honed our knowledge, some of which is entirely unfounded (I'm talking about me, not anyone else.). When dealing with a person of means, of prestige, how do you get them in ten minutes to realize that they are wrong?
I'll be honest. I don't think I could pull it off. Maybe someone else could, but not me.
What does convincing P.K. Wrigley he was wrong have to do with getting Theo Epstein fired? Quite a bit, in my opinion. To get a change at the top of the baseball operations ladder, you need the consent and agreement of Tom Ricketts. Pure and simple. Whether you like him as an owner or not, he would be the one 'swinging the ax'. If one is being bandied about. Nobody else really matters.
You (or I) could write the most concise yet detailed condemnation of Epstein's foibles as an executive in Chicago and before. However, if the Ricketts family isn't buying what you're printing, it's largely wasted time. (This wasted time premise has gotten me out of far more ventures than I care to remember.)
In other words, if you think the Cubs should go in another direction, you have, probably, ten minutes or so (maybe less) to convince Tom Ricketts that he should go in a different direction. Which data points to use? Ian Stewart? Yu Darvish? Yoenis Cespedes? Edwin Jackson? Mounting losses? Sagging attendance? So many options.
Before you start your manifesto/screed, allow me to remind you of a few things. When the Ricketts family took over from Sam Zell, they knew very little about the business side of baseball. I'm not sure how familiar they were with the Collective Bargaining Agreement. I doubt they could tell you much on how to differentiate between a good and bad (for instance) pitching coach. They probably weren't in tune with who outside the organization to trust for honest information. It wasn't an ideal set-up, but it's what it was.
It sounds like he (Tom Ricketts) was asking people questions, and learning on the fly. It sounds like, as time went on, Epstein would be the optimal guy to run the system, if the opportunity availed. In a matter of fashion, shortly after Jim Hendry was let go, Epstein became available. Here, then, whether you like them are not, are some things that are likely true. At least, until proven otherwise.
Other available and qualified candidates applied for the job Epstein was seeking.
Each, likely, had a lengthy chat about how they would do things the same, and different, from how they had been done.
Each were likely asked to name some people they might like to bring in to assist, if possible.
Epstein's method of the future was chosen over the others.
Epstein's vision of the future likely hasn't wavered much, despite changes in the baseball labor agreements, which have changed drastically.
It's time to go back to the Wrigley example.
I strongly encourage anyone who has an opinion to write it out. Writing is very good therapy. It's good practice at a skill that we otherwise ignore. Writing a thousand-word piece on a topic, of any sort, probably makes you a better writer, which would likely be a good thing.
However (and you knew there was a however coming), if you want to be persuasive, you have to change the mind of people. If I'm writing an article to stir up people who already agree with me on any topic, I guess that's fine. (After all, I do it here enough.) If I want to be persuasive, that only happens if I change people's minds.
If a persuasive piece is written on firing Epstein, the goal is to get someone to flip from, "No, don't fire him" to "Wow. I never thought of it that way. Fire his butt." For it to be successful (which is different from persuasive, in that it changes the mind of Tom Ricketts), it would have to lead to Epstein's ouster.
How does one write a piece that would encourage Ricketts to fire Epstein?
Remember a few more things. They have had far more detailed discussions on topics than you would likely imagine. From importance of secondary revenues, to plans on dealing with the rooftops, and how many bad years the team can tolerate. They know each other's answers. You don't, most likely. But don't let that deter you.
One final nugget before you start, though. As an owner, there are probably three things he wants to do. One is winning a championship. To be honest, that seems a bit in the distance now. A second is to retain a good standing in the community. Despite the rhetoric battles with the rooftops, I call that a push. The team continues to raise money for charity, and that carries a bit of community weight. The third thing?
Make money. All owners would like to turn a profit. It's, to an extent, what they do. Despite signing a horrible deal with Sam Zell, a team that has had a string of horrible years in succession, and getting called out for being cheap, aloof, and incompetent in some circles, the Cubs are making money.
If you invest in shares of a company, and they shortly thereafter have a couple plants burn down, lose a couple lawsuits, and get a few items recalled, but they're still making money, it has to be tempting to keep your shares.
To make the case that Ricketts ought to fire Epstein, and some of you will do that soon (if you haven't started), you have to acknowledge a few things to be credible. Ricketts and Epstein were on the same page regarding the rebuild at one point. Or it wouldn't have happened. And he wouldn't have been hired. You have to admit the new facilities in the Dominican Republic and in Mesa seem to have met or exceeded the need. You have to admit the idea of improving the quality of the play and the players (different topics) in the system are better. You also have to admit that players like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora are not only buzz-worthy, but benefiting from the tutelage in Epstein's system.
And, you have to acknowledge through gritted teeth that, despite four horrible seasons of baseball, the Cubs are still making money.
If you had the coolest job imaginable, were having a blast, and the money was continuing to roll in, wouldn't you be kind of cool with said gig?
If the players the new brass are training turn out to be crappy players, you could have a really good article. Or, if despite some of them being really fun players to watch, fans don't want to watch them play, that could also be an intriguing read. If these guys who have largely been model citizens so far become criminal threats in the next few years, I might beat you to that one.
The truth is, most angst, now as then, is fan angst. Mild fan angst goes over about as well as when a minority of shareholders make a point in a corporate annual meeting. You say your piece. Your time expires. The vote takes place. You lose the vote.
Does that mean I'm callous toward the losing? Probably I am, far more than most. However, the team has had lousy years before, and they will into the future. Cubs fans are, if nothing else, resilient and loyal. (Most teams are popular over bandwagon fans. The Cubs haven't had a good five-year bandwagon run since.... ?)
If you want Theo Epstein to be ousted in the next few years, and you want something you write to lead to it, I welcome the read. However, to be persuasive, you have to change minds. Change attitudes. Accurately document what has happened in the past, and deftly predict what might happen into the future. Getting a few likes on a Cubs blog won't create change. What you would have to do is get people who are fact-oriented to realize that the facts they've been following for a stretch have been misinterpreted. You have to get people to realize they are wrong, not simply tell them they are wrong.
You have to convince Tom Ricketts that he has the wrong guy for the future. Even if he's still making money, even though about everything has gone wrong for him the past four years.
Or, you can create a time machine and tell Philip Wrigley he shouldn't trade Bill Madlock for Bobby Murcer. Which might be easier.
Postscript: (William Conrad-style voice-over voice optional)
While at work recently, I asked some people what really frustrates them. I know I come off as rather blunt and aloof in my writing, and I wanted to ask real people who don't lack any apparent emotion, what truly frustrates them. Among their answers?
Sick family members.
Children who don't listen.
Problems being left unfixed.
These are all worthy of frustration. So would be a car wreck caused by the other driver. Or a friend losing their job. A baseball team predicted for fifth place being in fifth place? Minor irritation.
If you hate something, walk away from it unless the law or social norms require otherwise. Life is supposed to be enjoyable, not drudgery. And with that, enjoy the remains of your Thursday.